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Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells) (Con):
I very much agree with what the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) had to say, in particular his concluding point about the remarkable series of cross-party alliances that we have discovered during this brief debate.
If parliamentary debate is to mean anything, this must cause the Government to pause and to take this Bill away and think again. If they must legislate quickly, they should confine any legislation to the issue of allowances and possibly the issue of pay, leaving the complex constitutional matters for further and mature deliberation.
This is indisputably a constitutional Bill, and the Justice Secretary described it as such early in his remarks, but he also described it as an emergency Bill. That should be a contradiction in terms. The British constitution is highly complex. It is partly written and partly unwritten, and it contains complex links between its various partsthe judiciary, the Government and the House. I recall going around a historic house that had a wonderful silver set laid out in one of the rooms. In order to examine more carefullyor possibly borrowone of the silver forks, a member of the public pulled it towards him. What he did not realise was that an invisible thread linked all the items and they all started to move towards him. He desisted very quickly, and the Government should do likewise. Tampering with the bits of the British constitution will lead to unexpected consequences. The question of freedom of speech and the rights of the House as against the judiciaryand, in days gone by, the rights of the monarchhave at times been fiercely contested, and the civil war was partly about such matters. So the issue should be approached with humility and great care.
Remarkably, the Leader of the House who is not in her placealthough she appeared brieflyhas denied that the Bill contains any elements of parliamentary privilege. When we raised that with the Justice Secretary, he said, Well, it didnt last week. All the clauses that deal with parliamentary privilege must therefore have been added since then. As the Clerk of the House says in his striking memorandum, many parts of the Bill have to do with parliamentary rights and privilege, so I do not believe that all those have suddenly appeared in the last week. If that is the case, it makes me even more alarmed.
Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (LD): When those outside hear us talking about privilege, they may think that we are talking about ourselves and our privileges, but what we are talking about is the voice that we have on behalf of our constituents, and the need for that not to be constrained. It is important that people outside understand that we are not discussing our own personal benefit, but their rights to have their voice heard in this Chamber.
We are dealing today with potential statute law, and it will be the job of the courts to interpret it. The Bill is about how Parliament conducts itself, about its rights and, indeed, the powers of Committees. One feature of the Bill that has not been mentioned is that the proposed new authority will be able to interfere with our Committees. Clause 8(6) would require IPSA to produce a protocol regulating the behaviour of various bodies, including the Director of Public Prosecutions, the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis and the Standards and Privileges Committee. Such a protocol must presumably
be binding in some way. I am not a member of that Committee, but I am a member of several others, and we abide by the Standing Orders of this House. We would resent it very much if an outside agency were to tell us how we should relate to other outside agencies, but that is what is in the Bill.
IPSA must consult each of those bodies, including the Standards and Privileges Committee, but that is all. After that, its protocol would be binding. If it failed to bind, the courts would decide the matter, not this House. The Bill would export the powers of an important Committee of this House to an unelected, unaccountable quango. It is perhaps the final achievement of the quango state that we are setting up a quango to tell Parliament and its Committees what to do.
Earlier in the debate, I was worried that all this had emerged from the usual channels. Certainly the Justice Secretary implied that large chunks of the Bill had been agreed. It has been accurately asserted in the past that the usual channels are among the most polluted waterways in the world. We can all agree that private discussions between parties are no substitute for open debate. It is also dangerous when political parties agree. We all remember the Child Support Agency, which was almost unopposed in this House but created immense problems. The implications and consequences of that legislation had not been properly discussed or understood. We also had the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991. Even if this were not a constitutional Bill, it would be very dangerous to try to push it through all its stages in less than a week.
Of course everybody agrees that we must reform our expenses system, but that is happeningit is the whole point of the Kelly inquiry. Wisely, Sir Christopher Kelly is taking his time. When this issue was raised with the Justice Secretary, he said that the Kelly inquiry was much narrower. He said that it was simply concerned with setting up a system of expenses, and that the wider considerations about who should make the rules and administer and police the system were for this Bill. That was not the understanding when the Prime Minister, in desperation, set up the inquiry and wrote to Sir Christopher on 30 March. He wrote:
It will of course be for you as an independent Committee to consider how you wish to proceed. I am keen you should not feel bound in your discussions but free to consider a wide set of issues.
Adam Afriyie (Windsor) (Con): Is it not possible that the Kelly review may recommend that there should be no salaries and no expenses? In that case, the body that the Bill would set up would be redundant.
Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: My hon. Friend makes an acute point. We are prejudging the Kelly inquiry, and I hope that Sir Christopher will not feel bound by that. I was pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan), who opened for the Opposition, said that in government we may revisit this Bill if it becomes law. We should take careful note of anything that Sir Christopher and his committee say about it. It is important that committees are allowed to run their course, take evidence, deliberate and produce a timely report.
I have written to Sir Christopher and his committee, as we all had the option of doing, and I included many suggestions from my constituents about the allowances system. Meanwhile, the interim rules on allowances are working satisfactorily. Like all hon. Members, I have had many angry letters and e-mails about perceived past abuses, but I have received no criticism of the interim system. We are working under an austerity package that I support. It was agreed by the previous Speaker and the leaders of the main parties. It is fine as an interim solution and there is no urgency to replace it with institutional change in emergency legislation.
This is also the worst possible time to be making such changes, when Parliament is suffering from a collapse in its self-confidence. The institutional structures that the Bill would set up would long outlive the immediate problem of parliamentary expenses abuses. To submit to an external regulator in the way that is proposed would be a mistake.
Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Ind): Does the right hon. Gentleman not think that if we are seen to be resisting legal sanctions in cases where MPs have effectively acted corruptly, as defined in subsections (1), (2) and (3) of clause 9, the public will be right to think that we still just do not get it?
Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: We are not resisting criminal law. The point has already been made in this debate that the new offences are unnecessary. We are already subject to rules against fraud, false accounting and theft. The new criminal sanctions in the Bill are redundant. We are not resisting criminal law; I certainly will not. I agree that the full force of the law should apply, but that is not at issue. This point certainly does not have general assent, but I think that the ability to make rules about salaries and expenses should remain with the House. We should take advice, we should listen, and there should be outside bodies to make suggestions, but I believe that it is up to Parliament to explain and justify to the people who sent us here what those rules should be.
We could borrow from American experience. Under a constitutional amendment, Congress does not set its own remuneration, but must set rules that come into effect after an election. That was the most recent amendment to the American constitution. It means that Congress does not set its own rules; it sets rules for the subsequent Congress. In the next day or two, I shall propose an amendment to say that we should vote on new rules, but that they should apply only after the purging effect of a general election, so that we do not set our salaries and allowances but those for the next Parliament.
The only other part of the Bill to which I wish to refer is clause 10, which reproduces much of the wording of article 9 of the Bill of Rights and seeks to override it. That is extremely dangerous. The Bill of Rights is not an entrenched Act; it can be repealed, and that is effectively what we are doing, with highly unpredictable consequences. Clause 10 protects freedom of speech, both in Parliament and on behalf of our constituents, and is wholly unnecessary. No one denies the importance of parliamentary reform, and that is the point I want to end on. Let nobody accuse this House, and certainly
not me, of wanting to resist reform of our expenses. However, we must not carry out that reform by weakening Parliament, by exporting our powers to other organisations and bodies, and by overturning centuries of constitutional development, all of which is being done in a fruitless attempt to save a Government from extinction.
Adam Afriyie (Windsor) (Con): Today, the aim is to introduce a Bill that will restore the reputation of Parliament, or go some way towards doing so, specifically when it comes to expenses. I wanted to make a contribution, despite having to reorganise my entire diary to do so, to voice wider concerns about the Bill, and concerns that arise because the Bill does not quite do what I anticipated that it would when it was first announced last week. I feel compelled to speak because the people sent us to this place. They have elected us to make our judgments and put forward views without fear or favour. I feel that it is a duty to make observations that we sometimes feel uncomfortable about making. I also did not want to be complicit by being silent; I certainly will not do that.
In the few minutes available to me, I want first to make a point about the fact that this is the peoples Parliament. This is a representative democracy, and we are here on the peoples behalf. Secondly, I want to set the framework and the context in which the Bill was brought forward. Thirdly, I want to highlight some of the pressures on individual Members of Parliament, party leaders and Parliament itself. I then want to talk about the role of an MP, which has not been discussed to any great degree in this place, and has never really been codified or identified. I then want to appeal for some simplicity in how we tackle the issues through the Bill.
First, let us be clear: we are elected representatives of the people. We are here because our constituents chose us to represent their interests and to represent the nation on their behalf. We are here to air our constituents grievances, but also to work in the interests of everyone, without fear or favour. It is important to make it clear that this is a representative democracy; Members come here, into an assembly, to make points on behalf of the people and the nation that sent them. I make that point because, with regard to the Bill, there could be a case for considering a way in which people could feed in directly on our pay, remuneration and expenses system. Like other hon. Members, I think that the issue of pay and expenses is a special case. It is the one case in which we vote on things that directly affect our own well-being.
Another point to emphasise is that when we talk about parliamentary privilege we are talking not about the privilege of Members of Parliament, but about the peoples privilegethe peoples ability to express in the Chamber, through their Members of Parliament, points that otherwise may not be heard. We are talking about the ability of the public and Members of Parliament to speak to committees freely and openly. We are talking about the ability of Members of Parliament to speak freely and openly here in the Chamber, to voice sometimes controversial opinions, and to uncover thingssometimes unpopular thingsthat some would not wish to be uncovered. It would be incredibly difficult if parliamentary privilege were in any way undermined, and incredibly harmful to the people who sent us here.
As for the context of the debate, it is quite clear that we are living in a major downturna recessionand people are feeling the pain of that. It is clear that we are discussing the issue now, in some ways under coercion due to media attention, because ofI will not hold back my languagea useless expenses system that in some ways seems designed to bring this place into disrepute. That is why we are bringing forward the Bill.
Adam Afriyie: Absolutely; that is why I partially take the blame. I have been here for four years, and along with many Members who have been here for longer, I have had the opportunity to deal with the matter on several occasions. I am glad that we are beginning to deal with it, but I am not sure that the Bill is exactly the way in which to do so. On the subject of earnings, there is some pressure because of the downturn, and the matter of outside interests has now been raised, too.
There is a history of failure to address the problem. It is interesting, by way of context, to look at the number of committees that already exist, and the number of mechanisms that we already have, to deal with expenses. There is everything from a Members Estimate Committee, advisory bodies to it, a Members Estimate Audit Committee, a Committee on Members Allowances, an advisory body on Members allowances, the Senior Salaries Review Body, the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, the short-term Kelly review by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, plus several others. There is lots of machinery already there to deal with some of the issues. One of my concerns about the Bill is that we should be careful about introducing yet another body if its relationship to the committees in the system is not clearly defined and carefully debated.
What are the pressures on us? First, clearly, there is the media. In some ways they performed a great function by uncovering many of the complications and discrepancies in the system. To a certain degree, they are to be congratulated on that. However, the medias aim is to sell newspapers, so a good headline is no headline at all. What they are looking for are negative headlines. The current system delivers such headlines and bad news day in, day out.
Secondly, any parliamentary candidate fighting an incumbent MP will wish to highlight every small detail they can, in order to demonstrate that they may be a better representative. The current expenses system leaves all Members open to such criticism. I shall return to that. Thirdly, political parties are a source of pressure. There is political capital to be made from highlighting how one side or the other has been misusing a system that is incredibly complicated.
To someone who, like me, came from the world of business, it is interesting that all the pressures from outside and many from within this place seem to undermine the integrity of MPs, and the information that comes through is used to undermine what we do here. I am conscious that the media will pick out one or two select sentences from the debate today to demonstrate how MPs are trying to hold back the process of reform, and so on. The pressures are enormous, but there is no countervailing pressure from this place to correct that imbalance.
There is no clear definition of the role of an MP. The role has grown and evolved. Bagehot identified a few responsibilities, including choosing a Prime Minister, expressing the opinions of the people whom an MP represents, and teaching the nation
what it does not know.
We have responsibilities to Parliament, to committees, to constituents, to our parties, to ourselves and our own integrity, and to our familyif we neglect our family, we will come in for criticism. We have responsibilities to support charities locally, to respond to letters, to create laws, to participate in debates, to attend votes, and to respond to the media. Members who are Ministers or who have a Front-Bench job have another job on top of that. That is a quick smattering of the kind of responsibilities we have. In any debate on the Bill, or on expenses, salaries and remuneration, we must first consider what is expected of a Member of Parliament before setting out the remuneration and allowances. The role has changed over the years.
Adam Afriyie: I would not necessarily go that far, but we need to set a debate such as this in context. As the hon. Lady pointed out, our constituents do not understand quite what we do. I do not blame them. For the first few years that we are here, we do not understand exactly all the responsibilities either. To inform decision making on remuneration or considerations, one must take into account what is expected of a Member of Parliament.
When it comes to second jobs or declaring outside income and the amount of time spent on outside interests, that can be misconstrued if being a Member of Parliament is seen as a full-time, 9-to-5 job, which is not the situation. In many ways we are self-employed small business owners. We run our own offices and employ our own staff. In some ways we are paid employees for the functions that we perform in the House. In some cases we are unpaid employees, when we work, many of us, more than 60 or 70 hours a week. It is a vocation. We are traineesnoviceswhen we first arrive. We are part-time employees because we have long recesses, apparently. We have duties within working hours and outside working hours.
When we offer £400 a year as payment of Members of Parliament it is not a recognition of the magnitude of the service, it is not remuneration, it is not a recompense, it is not even a salary. It is just an allowance.
That was to reflect the fact that people come from different walks of life and have different financial means. The allowance was intended to enable those with lesser means to perform functions in Parliament, but it was not a salary. I am a little concerned that we have slipped into using salary for parliamentary moneys that are transferred to Members when, in fact, they are not necessarily a salary.
To make the debate a bit more exciting, I should say that £400, if translated into current-day average earnings, amounts to somewhere betweenwe can argue the figure£140,000 and £250,000. That is the context in which the issue ought to be considered. I am not arguing for that amount, so please let nobody assume that I am. [ Interruption. ] I notice that some people are nodding, saying No, do argue for it, but I am not going to do so. I merely observe that those moneys are not necessarily a salary, and that there may be a simpler way to tackle the issue. I hope that the Kelly review will consider that.
I am very much in favour of simplicity, but I am concerned that the Bill adds another layer of complexity. We are in danger of repeating mistakes, by just adding more bodies, by not tackling the underlying issue and by creating a system that is as ugly as that which we are attempting to replace. The Bill is too hasty and knee-jerk; we need a better debate about the role of an MP and what they should be paid for. Some direct input by people into the review would be very helpful. The Bill is either too narrow or too broadbut it has certainly come too soon and without proper consideration.
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